There were lots of perils to owning a home in coastal Georgia. Flooding was a real possibility. Our house sat all of fourteen feet above sea level. The high heat meant air conditioners did not last nearly as long as they do here. There were the spiders and snakes. I learned how to burn the nests of the brown recluse spiders and the black widows that lived in our yard. And then there were the termites. We installed termite bait stations to be installed around our house. I recall a conversation with our neighbor, who was from New Jersey, about the termites. “Our houses are tabby (which is concrete mixed with seashells),” she said, “how can a termite destroy that?” “Have you noticed,” I responded, “that the frame of your house is wood?” She hadn’t, I guess. The exterminators would come by every three months to monitor the bait stations, and invariably they would have dead termites within.
The problem with termites is this: these small creatures left to their devices can create a substantial amount of destruction on a home. If they are loose for long enough, they can make a house entirely uninhabitable. The termites are out of sight. Hidden. But what is hidden often has an oversize impact.
Today we heard a series of parables that are like that – little things that make an overwhelming impact. To most churchgoing folk, these short parables are pretty familiar. The mustard seed. The yeast. The treasure hidden in the field. The pearl of great price. Perhaps their familiarity has caused us to stop up our ears to them and not think about the depth of meaning they have or the many different possibilities of interpretation that exist in them. With few words Jesus says a lot. These familiar parables are subversive. Their original audience would have heard them with far more depth than we do today. So, to help get us into the frame of mind to hear these parables anew, I’d like to offer you a contemporary parable of my own that falls in line with these parables. Here goes.
The kingdom of heaven is like the Covid-19 pandemic. We hardly knew it was there, but sneeze by sneeze it blanketed the world.
How would you feel if Jesus showed up in Grand Haven and started saying things like that? I know I’d feel uncomfortable with it. It’s too raw while we’re going through it. But we’d also know that there’s a lot of subtext that we’d all get from those two sentences. We’d know about case counts and quarantine. We’d know about masks and social distancing. We’d know about the race for a vaccine. We’d know that we haven’t gathered for worship since March. Two sentences but a ton of subtext. But I also think we’d get it. The kingdom of heaven is hidden but spreads pervasively. It changes the character of all it encounters. It reorients life. It can cause division. You get the picture.
You’re not listening today because you want to have me make up parables, so I’ll move on to one of the parables of Jesus to dig into it more deeply. In digging, we’ll see a depth and a challenge that perhaps we haven’t encountered before. I’ll focus on yeast. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). Seems pretty simple, right? Yeast has been on our minds since baking bread became a prime activity of quarantine. I still can’t find yeast at the store. But we get the point. A tablespoon of yeast mixed into dough causes the character of the dough to change. It rises. It breathes. That small addition impacts the entire result.
Yet, there’s more to the story, so let’s dig in. Yeast is not the active dry yeast that we find in packets in the store. Yeast – zuma in the Greek – is sourdough starter. I know many of you have sourdough starter in your homes. Sourdough starter “is created when water mixes with the naturally occurring yeast spores that end up in flour when it is ground, and then the yeast’s enzymes break down the starch in the flour and convert it into glucose….Anyone who has ever made starter can watch the decomposition process. Recipes instruct bakers to place the starter in a bowl, cover the bowl with a dishcloth, and let the mixture sit in a warm, breezeless place, such as a dark oven. As the mixture sits, the fermentation process takes place. The starter is ready when what the recipe books call a ‘pleasant sour smell’ develops and the mixture has bubbles.”
Sourdough starter is useful, but it’s not pretty. It bubbles and breathes. It’s sour. It takes tending if you want to keep it going. What is more, if we did a word study on “yeast” in the New Testament, the connotations are almost always negative. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” Jesus warns (Matt. 16:6). Paul warns about how negative behaviors like boasting can destroy a community (1 Cor 5:6-8) and concludes, “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” I think we assume that yeast is a good thing, but we must be careful with what kind of leaven we mix in. The Bible warns that there’s plenty of bad leaven that can ruin wide swaths of what should have been good.
So, the yeast or leaven is important, but I think the woman in this parable is fascinating. Like I’ve done so far, we tend to focus on the yeast and not the one who is using the yeast. Our translation says that she takes the yeast and mixes it in to three measures of flour. Seems like a basic description of breadmaking, but there’s more going on. First of all, the Greek word for mixed in is enkrypto, which is the root of a word like encrypted in English. Another way to translate enkrypto is “to hide.” Was this supposed to be a different kind of bread? Perhaps it was supposed to be unleavened bread, but this woman comes in and hides leaven into the bread. The outcome of that batch of bread is now entirely changed!
What is more, this woman must be Italian, because she’s cooking to feed the neighborhood. She uses three measures of flour. We would probably think that’s like using three cups, but we’d be wrong. Three measures is somewhere between forty and sixty pounds of flour. This woman is out to feed an army of hungry people with her leavened bread. There are three Old Testament stories that mention using flour in this amount. The first is in Genesis 18, when Abraham welcomes three visitors to his home and tells Sarah to make cakes with three measures of flour. The second is in 1 Samuel 1, and it’s part of the extravagant offering Hannah brings with her young son, Samuel, to present him at the temple. The third is in Judges 6 when Gideon feeds an angelic visitor. Each story is pregnant with the action of what God is doing in the world. Each story is a picture of extravagant generosity.
So, when Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a woman who took yeast and hid it in three measures of flour until all the dough was leavened, we begin to see that there is far more going on than a basic description of cooking. Like sourdough starter, we see that good things can come from something that on its own doesn’t seem all that significant and that is even kind of smelly. Like the woman, we see that she has a purpose that is perhaps at odds with what others’ intentions were around her. Did they even want the bread to be leavened? We don’t know, but we do know that she wanted it to be so. She had purpose and intention in her actions, and that little bit of leaven changed the entire batch. Like the three measures of flour, we see that there is abundance to the kingdom. Google tells me that a typical loaf of bread takes about a pound of flour, so she’s made forty to sixty loaves with her efforts. That will feed a lot of people! It also shows how hardworking this woman is!
There is an unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God in all of these parables. Little things end up changing the character of bigger things. The mustard seed grows to provide shade for the birds. The yeast leavens dozens of loaves of bread. The man finds treasure, hides it, and sells all he has to get the treasure. The merchant has bought and sold pearls for his career and comes across one that leads him to sell everything to get that pearl. But notice how all of this hiddenness relies on human action. The seed must be planted. The yeast must be mixed in. The merchant must search. The man must find the treasure. Apart from human effort, the potential is latent.
So, what do these parables have to do with us? As Christians, God has partnered with all of us to assist with the unfolding of God’s kingdom – God’s reign – on earth as it is in heaven. In these parables, we just might be the sower, the woman with the leaven, the man searching for treasure, or the merchant buying the pearl. We are part of taking that hidden kingdom, spreading it or mixing it in, so that a difference is made around us. Dallas Willard reminds us that a kingdom is a place where a person’s influence determines what happens. God’s kingdom isn’t a geographic reality where we can point to it on a map. Rather, it becomes apparent in any place where the influence of Jesus’ living presence directs the shape of life. “Wherever and whenever Jesus’ wisdom, wit, savvy, words, and love mold the words, actions, thoughts, and life patterns of some person or group of persons, then there is where God’s kingdom is manifest.”
Strangely enough, these teachings conclude with Jesus’ asking them, “Have you understood all this?” According to Matthew they answer a simple “yes.” And I think, “Really? You get what all of this means?” It is so common for the gospels to report that people don’t get it or that the disciples have messed up again. But their answer gives me hope. We can live with the teachings of Jesus, consider them from every angle, keep working on them, and there’s the possibility that we’ll come to a point when our answer is a simple “yes.” Yes, Jesus, we do understand. And in understanding we move from our heads to our hearts and into our hands and feet, like the woman in the parable, quietly and perhaps even in a hidden way, changing the very nature of everything around us into what God wants it to be like. We are God’s agents of subversion, changing the world a little leaven at a time.